As a product that throws hundreds of ideas at the wall, What the Golf? is naturally an effort of ups and downs and of brilliancy and dullness; the fact that its excellent moments far outnumber the problematic ones, though, means that it can be recommended without any caveats
Standing in the middle of a fairway, a focused golfer is shown hunched over the ball. Displaying a firm stance, he aims towards the green that lies not too far in the distance. After a few seconds of jittery adjustments, he performs an amateurish but relatively solid swing whilst hoping to land the ball as close to the flag as possible. However, something goes awfully wrong; as if the universe had suddenly bugged into a wicked inverted version of itself, the swinging motion does not cause the ball to fly. Instead, it is the golfer who is propelled in a glorious arch, and as he is sent flailing in the air much like a rag doll, one realizes that the game of golf has been turned on its head: it is not the ball that needs to be holed, but the player himself.
Reportedly made by people who hate the sport and know nothing about it, the humorously titled What the Golf? reveals a lot about itself in that opening scene. Sure, this is a game that, in a way, employs many of the basic mechanics and ideas seen in the sport: it features plenty of aiming, a good deal of trying to achieve the precise degree of strength, and it generally concerns finding a way to get to the flag with a low amount of moves. But those essential three elements are not at all used to replicate the golf experience; they are, in fact quite contrarily, employed to either reconstruct it bizarrely or make a mockery out of the sport.
The game’s campaign happens inside an empty laboratory that is viewed from a top-down perspective. Taking the role of a ball that needs to be propelled around the numerous hallways of the facility, players will slowly come across a multitude of levels that offer weird twists on golf. It will all seem a bit random at first, but sooner or later – in a surprising storytelling turn for a title of this kind – they will discover there is a reason behind the chaos. As gamers look at rooms, clear stages, and stumble on funny computer logs, they will realize that, in a rather self-referential jab by developers at Triband, scientist at the lab that serves as the overworld for What the Golf? were so utterly bored by the sport that they took it upon themselves to try to fix it. And as it turns out, the challenges the round protagonist encounters are nothing but the staff’s desperate attempts at solving that problem.
These brave and only partially fictional folks can be accused of many crimes: lunacy, lack of respect for golf’s glorious traditions, physical abuse, and a handful of others. What they cannot be charged with, though, is laziness, because they sure put a heavy load of dedication towards curing the sport of the various illnesses that afflict it. Early on, What the Golf? features a lot of stages that recall its opening scene; that is, they are mostly concerned with launching unusual objects through the air so that they eventually hit a flag that stands in the middle of a green. Yet, it does not take very long for the game to show it carries far more than that initial and hilarious gimmick.
Divided into various segments that open up linearly as stages are cleared, every section of the lab is centered around a kind of experiment. Consequently, if on the game’s introductory chapter players will be making golfers, cars, couches, televisions, houses, and animals fly, later on the affair gets much more varied and What the Golf? violently expands upon its original concept to unearth a fantastic deal of greatness.
There are courses where golf or soccer balls are not launched, but pushed to avoid obstacles (such as CPU-controlled humanoids that try to kick them out of the fairway) until they reach the goal safely. There is an entire area dedicated to challenges centered around a car that has to be driven, via punctual forward motions that determine speed and direction, through tracks filled with explosives. There is a room of 2-D courses in space, with planets that stand between the ball and the flag exerting gravitational power that alters the shot’s trajectory. There is one set of 2-D levels starring a mass of goo that sticks to the wall and another featuring people practicing a variety of sports. There are stages that nod to games like Super Mario, Super Meat Boy, Portal, Angry Birds, Donkey Kong, and Guitar Hero. There are first-person-shooting tasks where golf balls are the ammunition. And the list goes on.
What the Golf? is so absurdly varied that it is tough to pinpoint it or even describe it. In fact, its sole famous point of reference within the gaming universe might be the WarioWare franchise. Titles of that series are exclusively made up of brief mini-games with simple mechanics and intentionally low production values; and since the real-life product was meant to be the result of Wario putting together a game development studio in his garage, developers used that idea as a trampoline to get utterly ridiculous and amateurish. In a way, What the Golf? is the same: the brevity of its stages make them be the equivalent to mini-games; its limited mechanics force its designers to go absolutely bonkers in order to unearth variety; and the concept behind it gives the title permission to be outrageous, mad, low-budget, and surrealistic.
There are only two rules that What the Golf? seems to stick to, and truthfully even those are occasionally broken. Firstly, its challenges need to be focused on a single command, as all players have to do during the quest is use a combination of the A button and the control stick to set the direction and the strength of the movement they are about to execute. Secondly, its tasks, regardless of what format they have, need to end with a flag being reached, which is about the sole golf tradition that the game slightly respects. Once those elements are set in stone, anything goes.
Still, as it was the case in WarioWare, there is method to the madness. Each one of the stages, which appear on the overworld as flags, comes in three formats. The first, which is the only one that needs to be cleared so that the ball can advance through the lab, generally concerns simply getting to the flag, regardless of how many movements are made; as a consequence, the experience of What the Golf? ends up being pretty accessible. The second is where a stronger difficulty comes in, as gamers will have to redo the task without going over par; in other words, they have to reach the goal within a number of movements. Finally, the third is a more generic challenge, ranging between anything from a slightly altered course to beating a sheep in a race, tumbling all black cats in the fairway, controlling a multitude of balls while making sure just the blue one touches the flag, and far more.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, even that format itself is not totally respected by the game. Sometimes the par challenge is replaced by something slightly different, like a race against the clock instead. On other occasions, the third format of the stage does not even take place on the same course, but on a completely different level that simply makes use of the same mechanics. And the list of variations continues endlessly.
In the end, through those unpredictable alterations, What the Golf? actually succeeds in basically multiplying the number of levels it offers by three. As such, since there are about one hundred flags scattered around the campaign’s lab, that means the more accurate number to quantify the amount of content contained here is a whopping three hundred. It is certainly a lot, to a point one may question if the pile is not so big that designers perhaps stretched themselves too thin when making the game; but What the Golf? is the kind of title that shrugs that thought off not just via its absurdist humor, but also by claiming eventual missteps are expected mistakes made in the wild experimentation conducted as golf was changed from a dull sport into the wackiest of them all.
Nevertheless, issues exist and they are a few. For starters, given the standard format of the levels has no requirements other than just getting to the goal, there are some that come off as a bit dull. Those that have challenges embedded into their fabric usually click very well: when rolling a vase of flowers to the flag, for instance, it runs the risk of breaking when it touches objects on the fairway; likewise, a boy riding a rocket can hit an explosive barrel and a bicycle that has to leap over gaps can fall to its death. However, there are a handful of standard stages with no dangers whatsoever, meaning they can be cleared by a child randomly pressing the A button. In those instances, What the Golf? can look like a game that prioritizes humor and physics-based lunacy over engaging gameplay. Fortunately, though, scenarios like these are not too frequent.
In addition, with so much experimentation going on, smaller problems come up. Some ideas do not stick as well as others; the group of first-person stages that is close to the end of the journey, for example, is not too interesting. And the controls of a few types of challenges could have been improved. For instance, also positioned towards the final leg of the game, there are a couple of stages where players need to guide a crab up a wall so it reaches the flag before the water washes the creature away. As most will find out, though, successfully clearing those by using the controller is nigh impossible; fortunately, the game can also be played with touch controls if the Switch is undocked, and doing so for those particular tasks will make the objective far more attainable.
The last issue, and the sole instance of frustration in an experience that is otherwise a hilarious joy to get through, appears on a few specific challenges that entail reaching the flag within a certain number of strokes or a specified time. Sometimes, the requirement is so tight that attempts degenerate into whether or not small physics events turn out favorably, like hoping bumping into a tree just right will redirect the car appropriately or praying a ball that has to be guided by wind currents generated by fans was rolled with the precise force to make it carry all the way to the hole. Success in those situations feels very random, so the process of getting to it is not all that engaging since it involves repeated clueless attempts.
In total, players can expect about ten hours of gameplay out of What the Golf? if they go for full completion of its campaign. The game, however, complements that already respectable time in multiple ways. There is a daily challenge, based on randomly selected levels, that once completed will upload the number of strokes used by players into an online leaderboard. There is a so-called impossible challenge of especially designed ultra tough courses that works in pretty much the same way, with the difference being that it is permanent rather than updated every day. There is a party mode in which two players tackle challenges simultaneously to see who gets to the flag first. Finally, to those who want to go the extra mile, there are also online leaderboards that keep track of how many strokes gamers used during the campaign for different rates of completion; consequently, the main mode itself can be replayed for better scores.
What the Golf? is so unpredictable it is a bit hard to summarize and it breaks so many rules that even its core concept is occasionally disrespected. Its essence, though, is that of a mini-game collection that is centered on a very narrow idea: physics-based shenanigans that heavily satirize the titular sport in ridiculous and varied ways. Its low production value and corny humor are absolutely calculated; the extent of its cleverness in gameplay as well as laughter, however, is magical, and the title squeezes a shocking degree of value out of the wish to turn the game of golf on its head.
As a product that throws hundreds of ideas at the wall to see which ones stick, What the Golf? is naturally an effort of ups and downs; of brilliancy and dullness. The fact that its excellent moments far outnumber the problematic ones, though, means that it can be recommended without any caveats to anybody: avid gamers will encounter plenty of challenge; people who play casually will be hooked in by its humor and simplicity; those who hate golf will certainly relate to its motivation and appreciate the shots taken at fixing the sport in the wildest possible ways; and those who love golf will like the surrealistic twists it implements on the game.